The China Edge – A German entrepreneur revived his dream of setting up a tech start-up in Hong Kong

30 Jun

This interview about my time and experience in Hong Kong since early 2006 was recently published by Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC). Thanks to Peta Tomlinson for the nice article. The original version can be found here.

German-born technology entrepreneur Matthias Hendrichs founded his first digital start-up company in 1996 in Germany. A few years later, the dotcom bust put the brakes on his growing enterprise, and he diversified into other industries, working for large German corporate enterprises such as Bertelsmann and BASF. 

In 2006, the offer of a project posting to Hong Kong proved to be the catalyst to reignite his entrepreneurial dream. Today, Mr Hendrichs is Managing Director of Gao Feng Advisory Company, a strategy and management consulting firm he co-founded in 2014, and a trusted advisor, author and speaker on the topic of digital transformation and disruption in China.

“My DNA has always been an entrepreneur – that’s why I started, even without meaning to,” he said. “With my first business, I got excited and just did it, like most entrepreneurs do.”

By 2009, the iPhone had sparked the mobile Internet revolution, and the imagination of Mr Hendrichs, who was still living in Hong Kong. “I really wanted to do something in that space, and Hong Kong was such a great place to start a business,” he said.

Solid Support

While developing his idea for a web-enabled audio-visual guide for visitors to the city (launched as a start-up, Ask Ting Ting, in 2010), Mr Hendrichs “was amazed” by the encouragement he received, citing support from organisations such as InvestHK, as well as private enterprise. “People were very open-minded – encouraging me and also providing help,” he said. “I reached out to some very senior people at that time, and was amazed how many invited me for coffee and shared their views and opinions. It is part of the spirit that this city is fostering.”

Ask Ting Ting, which provided partner hotels with both the software and the phones to offer their guests, was positioned as a world-first at that time, receiving wide media coverage including in Time magazine. A media company bought the business in 2012.

Mr Hendrichs then turned to consulting as a way of leveraging his experience to help other businesses. He headed up the Hong Kong office of US consulting firm Booz & Company, until it was sold to PwC. Then, together with business partner Dr Edward Tse, former Chairman of Booz & Company, he co-founded Gao Feng Advisory Company.

The company launched in April 2014 with only two staff – Dr Tse and Mr Hendrichs. Today the business employs more than 30 people across three offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. After starting out in serviced offices, the company is now moving into permanent premises in each location.

Local Know-how

Gao Feng’s edge is its Chinese roots, Mr Hendrichs said. “Most consulting firms [operating in the region] are Western, but not many have real, Chinese-based knowledge. We saw that as a big opportunity, because we understand the China market and our focus is purely on Greater China.”

Professionally, Mr Hendrichs has also built a profile as an in-demand speaker and author, writing thought-leadership insights and viewpoints under his company, as well as for such publications as the South China Morning Post, Asian Nikkei Review andChina Daily. “Bringing out our point of view and communicating our perspectives is critical for doing business,” he says.

The company helps both local and multinational companies on Hong Kong and Chinese mainland-related strategies, including how to grow their business, which markets to enter, how to best meet local Chinese consumers’ needs, and which partnerships/acquisitions they should undertake. Its clients come from a broad cross-section, from traditional industries such as manufacturing, consumer goods and automotive, but increasingly in the digital sphere, with companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent.

“We are increasingly helping traditional companies in their digital transformation,” Mr Hendrichs said. To that end, he added, “Hong Kong gives us access to a multinational client base, knowledge centre [around topics like Fintech], and finding the right talent.”

Must Know China

Every company operating in Hong Kong is affected by the China market, Mr Hendrichs said. “It’s changing so rapidly, and in so many dimensions at the same time, that there is always need for advice in different shapes and forms.” He cited digital disruption and changing consumer demands as two key areas.

“Hong Kong is a hub for Asia, so through it, I have gained a multitude of different Asian perspectives.”

Mr Hendrichs’ “short-term posting” to Hong Kong has extended to more than a decade. He’s never considered leaving because, so far, “no other place has offered me more, or better opportunities, than Hong Kong.”

“The move here opened my eyes,” he said. “Once I left Germany, I gained a much broader perspective; a more international base of friends and business contacts. Hong Kong is a hub for Asia, so through it, I have gained a multitude of different Asian perspectives.”

And the lifestyle “is great,” he added. “The fast pace takes a bit of getting used to, but now it is so much part of me that when I go back and visit Germany, it’s hard to accept the slowness of everything around me.”

Mr Hendrichs is also giving back to the local start-up community, serving on the advisory board of Metta, a new membership club for start-ups to network, mingle and collaborate. Launched in May 2016, Metta is backed by some leading venture capitalists and central figures in Hong Kong, including Allan Zeman, Chairman of the Lan Kwai Fong Group.

“Hong Kong provides a great platform for entrepreneurs,” he said. “The start-up community is so vibrant, with a tremendous spirit – that is one of the remarkable things about Hong Kong.”

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